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Rules on Open Space Change with Controversial Vote

The old rules allowed for an ice skating rink on open space, but not baseball fields.

The way open space in Anne Arundel County is treated will change after new rules were approved Monday night by the County Council, amid jeers from the audience.

The sponsor of the open space bill, Councilman Jamie Benoit (D-4th District) of Crownsville, argued that the current rules governing open space in the county don’t make sense. After years of changes, Benoit said the rules had become a patchwork that allow for some uses but not others.

Under the old rules, one could build an ice skating rink or a county wastewater treatment facility on open space—but not a baseball field. Golf was the only permitted activity on grass.

"Our code as it's currently drafted creates these crazy results," Benoit said during a hearing in March. "You can have recreation so long as you play it in water, or on its frozen form, but once you play the sport on grass, unless it's golf, our code doesn't allow it."

Benoit’s changes—first introduced in February and ultimately approved on Monday night—change those rules to allow for more recreational uses in the county on land declared as open space, which comprises more than 34,000 acres.

The bill also opens the door to a proposed expansion onto the , near the Annapolis Roads community. over the school's purchase of land on the golf course to build new classrooms and recreational fields. That lawsuit is still pending.

The Key School's proposal quickly became a lightning rod for opponents of the bill, some of whom have said special-interest groups are driving sweeping changes to the county’s open space rules.

“The longer we draw this out, the more we expose the bill for what it is,” said Patrick McDermott, an Annapolis Roads resident. “What I see is The Key School against Annapolis Roads, with a developer hovering in the background.”

Chester "Trip" Buckenmaier said the issue at stake wasn’t ball fields or Key School—it was the environment. Much of the open space that’s left in the county is tied to streams and rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, and he said the bill doesn’t provide safeguards for the environment.

“These areas are our last protections between the bay and the pollutants,” Buckenmaier said. “The bay depends on Anne Arundel County and, councilmen, Anne Arundel County depends on the bay.”

The bill has been the focus of several public hearings during the past three months. On Monday, the bill had its final hearing with more than a dozen residents turning out to ask council members to vote it down. 

Just before voting, John Grasso (R-2nd District) of Glen Burnie, said the decision seemed obvious to him.

"This is one messed-up situation we have here," Grasso said. "But this job as a councilman, you know, it's a pretty easy job if you just listen to the people."

Grasso noted that the majority who spoke during the several hearings were against the bill, and only a few had spoken in favor of it.

But council members approved the measure by a 5-2 vote, with Councilmen Chris Trumbauer (D-6th District) of Annapolis and Grasso voting nay.

The final vote was read amid boos and jeers from the audience, most of whom immediately left the council’s chambers loudly. By the time they had all exited, the chamber’s seats were nearly all emptied.

Larry Tom, the county’s planning and zoning officer, agreed with Benoit that changes should be made to the regulations, but wanted a chance to look at the rules further before a vote was taken.

For the past few weeks, Tom has been working on a comprehensive overhaul of the open space regulations. Throughout recent council meetings, he has asked for more time to complete them. During Monday’s meeting, Tom said his regulations could be delivered to the council by the summer.

Trumbauer asked the council to wait and see what Tom would deliver. But when the vote was called, the majority of the council approved it. Whether Tom’s look at the open space regulations will change the course of the rules in the future remains to be seen.

Chris Rizzo May 09, 2012 at 04:48 PM
Where was the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on this one? One should be questioning supporting an organization that doesn't support the Chesapeake Bay.
EnviroWhiteKnight May 09, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Maybe the CBF thought the Bill was good for the Bay and didn't need to weigh in? How can the most strict requirement in the entire zoning code, more restrictive than the critical area/RCA, be bad for the environment? Do these environmental groups that are opposed to the legislation really think that a building golf course with no reforestation requirement is a better use of open space than building ball fields for kids when that use requires a greater level of reforestation than what is disturbed? Any environmental group opposed to this bill needs to explain themselves!
Mike May 09, 2012 at 08:45 PM
I am not a enviromentalist per say, but it's easy to see that whether it's ballfields or an ice skating rink, both require parking which is an impervious surface. Impervious surfaces are bad for the Bay. The Federal and State governent already pushing Counties that are on the Bay for the reduction of sediment running into the watershed. I'm sure this change will certainly no help in reducing runoff. I'm sure we'll just get taxed more to fix the problems that these politician’s and special interest groups create just so they can personaly benefit.
EnviroWhiteKnight May 10, 2012 at 12:18 AM
Mike, it's my understanding that this bill does not expand on any impervious surface possible in the critical area and it places limits on impervious surface out side the critical are that do not exist in the law before. The only thing this bill does is let this land be enjoyed for outdoor recreation. But wait! If you put a grass soccer field on the property you must comply with the strictest environment provisions in the zoning code. If you put any of the other permitted uses on the land, you have hardly any restrictions. I'll ask again, how is this law bad for the environment?
H.F. Trampolini May 13, 2012 at 06:55 PM
This legislation effects 34,000 acres of open space. These areas are usually environmentally sensitive, or set aside in lieu of concentrating development, such as residential clusters. The legislation enables 20% of land, formerly set aside, to be developed for structures and parking. That is a total of 6800 acres. Larry Tom, head of Planning and Zoning, agreed code needed to be updated and requested time to conduct a study to get an idea of ramifications. This sweeping change effects thousand of homeowners, many of whom bought their homes with the understanding the open space was protected. Many are unaware of the change, should they have been notified of a change in use of adjacent land? Will they be compensated for take of quiet enjoyment of their homes? The rushing the bill through without any idea of the effects is shortsighted at best.

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